As I write this, Russian military intelligence doesn’t have a chief. Perhaps more perplexingly, no one seems entirely sure what it’s called, either. And yet this matters.
On January 3, director of military intelligence Colonel General Igor Sergun died suddenly of congestive heart failure. He was a relatively young 58, but had been suffering from overwork, and some have suggested that there was talk of transferring him, or putting him — like his ill-starred predecessor, General Shlyakhturov — on medical furlough. Some richly implausible and poorly supported tales to the contrary, there is no reason to believe there was anything suspicious about his death.
At present, despite some hints that an outsider might be parachuted into the position — perhaps someone from the Federal Security Service (FSB) or else the Presidential Security Service (SBP), Vladimir Putin’s closest clients — it seems most likely the job will go to one of Sergun’s deputies. However, what is the job called?
Beginning in the 1920s, Russian military intelligence was known as the GRU, standing for the Glavnoe razvedyvatel’noe upravlenie, or Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff. When Leon Trotsky established the Red Army out of the Bolshevik revolutionary Red Guard and began to regularize and professionalize it, he created its first intel branch, known initially as Registrupravlenie (the Registration Directorate) then Razvedupr (short for the Intelligence Directorate). This was the Second Directorate of the General Staff, which then became the Fourth Directorate, and then the GRU.
Civilian intelligence and security went through a bewildering array of organization and name changes through the Soviet era. Ready? The VChK became the GPU, then OGPU; next NKVD, briefly NKGB, back to NKVD; NKGB again, MGB, and finally KGB in 1954. Even after the Soviet collapse in 1991, the alphabetic merry-go-round continued to spin. The KGB was dissolved. Its foreign espionage activities went to a new Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), while domestic security went to a new the Ministry of Security (MB), which became the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service (FSK), in 1995 renamed the FSB, Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti.
But the GRU retained its name, position, and role pretty much unchanged through all these changes, through World War II, the fall of the Soviet Union, and Putin’s rise. In the 1990s, it suffered along with the other security agencies from massive under-funding and political infighting, but it made it through. In 2006, its slick new headquarters, still known as the Aquarium, was opened close to its former one, in Moscow’s Khodinka suburb.
It was thus a big deal when, after the 2008 Georgian War, there began whispers that the GRU would lose its “G” and be demoted to a regular directorate of the General Staff. While its Spetsnaz special forces performed well in that conflict, the GRU as a whole were regarded as having done a poor job. Airfields which were actually out of service were bombed in the mistaken belief they still housed Georgian planes, for example.
Downgrading to becoming a regular department would have been more than just an embarrassment to the GRU brass. It would mean that the director of the agency lost his right personally to brief Putin, and henceforth all intelligence materials would have flowed through the chief of the General Staff. Russia cannot simply be described as an autocracy, but nonetheless, today’s Kremlin is reminiscent of a royal court. As such, personal access to Putin is one of the most powerful bureaucratic resources there is. To lose that would have been a blow from which Russian military intelligence would not recover.
As it was, though, the GRU was in luck. In 2011, its former chief Alexander Shlyakhturov was replaced by Igor Sergun, who proved an able, articulate, and effective champion of his agency’s interests. According to insiders, he was particularly good at managing relations with Putin and those to whom the president listens. He was, in short, an able courtier. It may prove to be (and this is my personal suspicion) that in the process he shaded his briefings to flatter and reassure, to tell the tsar what the tsar wanted to hear. This is poor intelligence practice but good court tradecraft. However it happened, he won Putin’s esteem.
The times were also changing. The chaos in Ukraine was a boon for the GRU, which was one of the lead agencies both in the seizure of the Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent destabilization of the Donbas. If the future means more “hybrid war” operations, more interactions with warlords, gangsters, and insurgents, then this is much more the forte of the GRU than the SVR. Sergun died, ironically, with his service’s prestige and role at their peak.
The strange thing is that the GRU may not even be the GRU anymore. Look at the Russian defense ministry’s website and it is listed simply as the GU, the “Main Directorate.” This more than faintly strange, not least because there are other main directorates, such as the Main Operations Directorate. This would be a little like renaming the Department of Defense as “the Department.” It may sound cool at first blush, and a little creepy, but also makes very little sense. After all, if the GU — technically, the GU GSh VS RF, or Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation — has been renamed for reasons of security, then why still have a webpage saying what it is?
There are suggestions the name change may even date back to 2011. But if so, no one seems to have told the Russian media or even the Kremlin. Commenting on Sergun’s death, Putin’s telegram of sympathy referred to him as head of the GRU.
So why does any of this matter? First of all, because it seems to have settled the question of whether military intelligence (or whatever it is called) retains the partial autonomy of being a main directorate. In the process, it means that the Kremlin can hear its briefings without the involvement of the chief of the General Staff. Given that from Crimea ’14 back to Afghanistan ’79, the Russian chief of the General Staff has tended to be a voice for caution in military adventures — thereby typically sidelined from the key political discussions — this raises the risk that the “voice of the military” heard in the Kremlin is actually the voice of the military spies.
But even if that battle has been won, the GU formulation seems like a temporary aberration. “GRU” may simply disappear from view only to resurface again as the official name (after all, why change a brand when it is successful?) or it could be that the real battle for its role is yet to come. The name GU may simply be a placeholder, signifying that the agency’s long-term role and future is still in play.
Regular military commanders who for a while thought they had managed to get the Spetsnaz transferred to their control still feel that the GRU should stick to spooky ops and leave the kinetic stuff to them. Or at least the agency should be divided into strategic and tactical intelligence arms. Meanwhile, in the regular “spook wars” fought behind the scenes in Russia, the SVR and the FSB still would like to see all or some of the GRU’s roles and assets transferred to them.
Whoever is chosen to fill Sergun’s shoes may well find quite a fight ahead of him.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and director of its Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats. His most recent book is Spetsnaz: Russia’s Special Forces (Osprey, 2015).